I remember a time where I considered myself a good listener. As someone with a good dose of empathy, I’m usually very interested in what goes on in someone’s mind. Unfortunately, over the last few months I noticed I’ve been making a crucial mistake, which I’m planning to fix as soon as possible. In this article I would like to share my tips on how to be a good listener, and share the crucial mistake I’ve been making.
How to be a good listener: The mistake I’ve been making
As I’m writing this article, I’m trying to recall the times I’ve taken on the roll of what you’d call “a listener”. Someone who opens up to the story of a friend in need. A shoulder to cry on. A person who provides reassurance by simply opening their ears. It doesn’t take long until a couple of situations come to mind.
I remember being a demure but heartfelt listener in my teens. A time when the problems my peers shared could upset me and stress me out, driving me to frustration and tears. I either responded frantically – exclaiming loudly among the lines of what I know my friend would like to hear (usually along the lines of “Yeah, your dad totally sucks!” Or “No she didn’t!”). Or I listened quietly, being too much in awe to give a helpful response when the problem simply went way over my head.
Then I remember a more recent situation. The Mister was venting about a problem, which luckily wasn’t that serious. I did notice he was pretty heated up about it, so I wanted to provide him with a solution. As someone who has an interest in the human psyche, I started to recall the personalities of the people he mentioned, analyzing them and their behavior in the situation he described. I did try to listen patiently and carefully, so I put genuine effort into letting him finish. But as soon as I found room, I did make sure to throw in that pointed remark I felt would provide him with the insight he needed.
Who do you think is the better listener: Teenage me, or present me? I wasn’t mentally where I am now when I was young, but according to my research, teenage me was able to provide a more active listening ear, if not provide more compassion overall.
The fact that at the end of the latter situation, the Mister actually asked me “to just listen for a second, and not try to solve his problem” speaks volumes.
How to be a better listener with these 3 tips
1: Don’t give unwanted advice
This is a point I will need to embrace to the fullest. Sometimes I find myself in situations where I feel that someone – anyone – should give the person in distress a nudge in the right direction. This can be something simple like “maybe you should have a hot bath and call it a night” to some elaborate piece of advice which has been concocted to precision, applicable to that exact situation, taking all the people involved into account – Oh sh*t, here I go again.
The key here is to acknowledge the role your friend asks you to play. If they’re telling you about their problems, they indirectly ask you to listen. Only when they ask “what do you think I should do?” they’re asking for your advice*.
* Today I found this Ted Talk by Sophie Andrews, a woman who describes being eternally grateful to a Brittish helpline called Samaritans. Even when she rang the number from a public phone booth in complete distress after repeated abuse at the age of 14, they provided her a listening ear rather than a piece of advice. She describes that this is exactly the approach she needed, as she felt they didn’t pressure her or scare her away. She describes her experience as “always being in control”, which was a relief, as she felt out of control of every other aspect of her life. This might be the perfect example that even the people who might seem to need advice the most, might benefit more from non-judgmental compassion.
So be careful when you force your opinion – in the form of well-meant advice – on your communication partner; when they’re looking for someone who just listens, the biggest gift you can hand them is a listening ear, rather than a speaking mouth.
2: Don’t voice comparisons to your own life aloud
It is natural to show compassion by comparing life’s problems to those you’ve experienced yourself. By remembering how you felt during a similar occurence you actively try to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. Unfortunately, comparing your past situation with someone else’s present often comes across heartless and unsympathetic. Like you want to talk about your own feelings, while the person you’re talking to just requested to vent theirs.
If the person you’re speaking to directly asks you for advice in relation to your past experiences, you are free to give it to them. Some people really appreciate talking to someone who has been through something similar as they are going through now, but your first task in the role of being a good listener, is actually being a good listener.
3: Listen actively and without distractions
There can be numerous reasons why your thoughts start to drift when a friend is sharing their problems with you. Maybe you feel their problems are trivial. Possible you have problems of your own, which you have trouble putting out of your mind. You may be tired, or distracted by your phone. Whatever the problem is; the key on how to become a good listener is by being present in the situation and giving the person you’re talking to your undivided attention. Your conversational partner will notice the contrary, which might leave them feeling even worse.
A gentle PS:
Before publishing this article I consulted two people who are very close to me (including the Mister), apologizing for recent events in which I felt I gave a little too much advice, and too little of a listening ear. Both responded rather affronted, saying they know I mean well; that giving advice is my way to show compassion and think along – and also that my advice is often very useful. For the sake of continuous self improvement and the fact I find these well-researched tips very helpful (and the fact that general acquaintances might not be so tolerant of my behavioral quirks as my family) I will leave the article as it is.
Do you feel you are a good listener? And what do you value in a good listener?